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State of the Union 'response' often a mixed-blessing for the responder

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 26, 2011; 12:36 AM

Two House Republicans offered back-to-back responses to the State of the Union address Tuesday night - both bashing President Obama for ballooning government budgets but offering few specifics for solving the problem.

The first came from Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), who offered the GOP's official response. Ryan's message was a stark reply to Obama's speech, in which the president had repeated the words "We do big things" to emphasize the American capacity to overcome.

America, Ryan said in response, was about to be overcome - by the pressures of its growing debt.

"A few years ago, reducing spending was important. Today, it's imperative," Ryan said, speaking from the House Budget Committee room. He said that without action, the United States could soon face the same crises that have crippled Ireland, Greece and other European countries. "We face a crushing burden of debt. The debt will soon eclipse our entire economy and grow to catastrophic levels in the years ahead."

After Ryan spoke, Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) gave a speech described as the tea party response to Obama's address. She showed only hints of the strident rhetoric that has made her a national media figure: She called the new health-care law "Obamacare" several times but never "socialism."

Bachmann, like Ryan, called for the repeal of that health-care overhaul. But beyond that, neither gave many details about how to make potentially unpopular cuts in federal spending.

Instead, both made the same pledge: We're working on it.

"We can do this. That's our hope. We will push forward. We will proclaim liberty throughout the land," Bachmann said as a screen behind her showed a copy of the Constitution. "And we will do so because 'We the People' will never give up on this great nation."

This was an unusual reprise of a 45-year Washington tradition, in which the opposing party sets out to rebut the president on a night when the president holds all the cards. Obama, like presidents before him, had the grand backdrop of the House chamber. He had the best line: "The state of our union is strong!" And he had the early time slot, starting a few minutes after 9 p.m.

This year, the dueling responses probably made it even harder for either Republican to be heard.

Would viewers remember Ryan, using only his expressive face to convey worry about the debt? Or would they remember Bachmann's screen, which showed bar graphs and patriotic images behind her? At one point, she showed the iconic photo of Marines raising an American flag over Iwo Jima in World War II.

"Our current debt crisis we face today is different," Bachmann said, "but we still need all of us to pull together."

In the past, official responses have sometimes been given by two politicians appearing together. Tuesday's split responses were a signal that the GOP's takeover of the House might have worsened, not fixed, the party's major internal division.

Republicans appear split between the small-government activists who were the foot soldiers of last fall's midterm landslide and the establishment politicians they elevated to power. Those new leaders have been in Washington long enough to know that there is a potential backlash behind every major cut.

Ryan, in his address, said Obama was right to have focused much of his speech on jobs and the economy. But Ryan said Obama had made a series of bad choices. The congressman said that spending on domestic government agencies had gone up by 25 percent under the Obama administration and that Democrats had created "a new open-ended health-care entitlement."

"We owe you a better choice and a different vision," Ryan said.

Ryan laid out, in general terms, a vision of a government shrunk to more basic functions.

"We believe government's role is both vital and limited: to defend the nation from attack and provide for the common defense, to secure our borders, to protect innocent life, to uphold our laws and constitutional rights, to ensure domestic tranquility and equal opportunity, and to help provide a safety net for those who cannot provide for themselves," Ryan said.

But he said little about what programs would be left out of that vision. In the past, Ryan had advocated specific measures to reduce domestic spending, including gradually raising the retirement age to 70 and putting Medicare and Medicaid recipients in private insurance plans.

In his address, Ryan did not mention those ideas. Instead, he asked Americans to wait for Republicans to work through the long process of setting a federal budget.

"In this very room, the House will produce, debate and advance a budget," he said. "Our forthcoming budget is our obligation to you - to show you how we intend to do things differently."

Bachmann has become a national figure as one of the movement's loudest voices on Capitol Hill but has been kept outside the inner circle of Republican leaders in Congress.

On Tuesday night, the difference between her message and Ryan's was that although Ryan accused Obama of making a dangerous situation worse, Bachmann appeared to focus on Obama as the main danger.

"We saw an unprecedented explosion of government spending and debt," she said, "unlike anything we have seen in the history of our country."

In those excerpts, Bachmann also said that Republicans in the House could play a role in cutting the federal budget. But the details, she suggested, were still in the future.

"Thanks to all of you, there's reason to hope that real spending cuts are coming," she said. "I believe that we are in the early days of a history-making turn here in the House of Representatives."

Over the past 45 years, official responses to the State of the Union speech have been a political sand trap for both parties. This is an assignment in which it seems impossible to excel. In 2007 and 2008, Democrats responded to President George W. Bush while seated in front of a camera, using a low-key appeal that did little to grab viewers. Last year, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R-Va.) gave his address in a legislative chamber at the state Capitol - and wound up looking like an actor playing the president on TV.

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